Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series in which espnW writer Kate Fagan takes an educational tour of the WNBA to try to answer one major question: Why isn't she a fan of the league?
Jeremy Lin. That's who the WNBA is missing -- or, rather, the possibility of a Jeremy Lin come-from-nowhere story.
Stick with me; I'll explain.
The WNBA is back in action after going on hiatus during the London Olympics. That makes this an ideal time for Part II of our WNBA series (you can read the first installment here), because the success of female athletes in London once again has jump-started the discussion about the future of women's professional sports in the United States.
Of the four women's pro leagues that sprang up in the wake of the 1996 Atlanta Games, the WNBA is the only one still operating in its original form. But that doesn't mean all is right with professional women's basketball in this country. As outlined in Part I of this series, the WNBA is in a tricky position in the sports landscape, reliant upon its summer schedule while also hindered by it. On one hand, the shortened season hampers cohesion, which is generally the calling card of women's hoops; on the other hand, the WNBA's modest salaries (most players earn their living playing overseas during the winter) have allowed the league to gradually discover a working business model. Right now, 25 percent of WNBA teams turn a profit, and league president Laurel Richie is determined to see that number grow.
Still, I think the WNBA is struggling to capture a key market: people like me, women who are the same age as the current generation of players. We grew up with access to sports, and a lot of us competed, so we don't see women playing as a reason, in itself, to pay attention. We want to see the best hoops, period.
Recently, I was talking with a former women's college player who plays overseas. Her perspective is that WNBA teams too often focus on drafting and signing players with out-of-this world athleticism, hoping to hit a home run, rather than taking the time to develop talent and build a distinct identity, creating a well-rounded team. This isn't true of every franchise, but it is a general concern in women's basketball -- an unavoidable consequence of the WNBA cutting the roster size from 13 to 12 and now to 11.
And this is where the Jeremy Lin Theory comes into play. Lin spent his first NBA season clinging to the end of the Golden State Warriors' bench -- the 15th player on a 15-man roster (the league max). He was cut by the Warriors before his second season, picked up by the Houston Rockets, cut again, then signed by the New York Knicks. You know the rest. If the NBA had 11-man rosters, Lin would almost certainly be starting his third season overseas, to no fanfare, because NBA teams would have much less margin for error; they would need each roster spot for an immediate contributor, not for a young player who might become great some day.
Which is exactly the position WNBA teams find themselves in: Developing young talent is a luxury they don't possess. With rosters capped at 11, teams must sign players who can contribute immediately -- and that kind of pressure eliminates the possibility of signing a young gun who, in the right environment, could blossom into a star.
The possibility of greatness, finding a player who's at the beginning of his or her upward trajectory, is one of the best things about sports. But this rarely happens in the WNBA. The league's most marketable players, women such as Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker, even Australia's Lauren Jackson, come in as known commodities. They are stars before they arrive.
The roster cap also hinders a team's ability to sign role players who might do one thing well: defend on the perimeter, for example, or knock down open shots from long range. Too often, because of injuries, teams practice with only eight or nine healthy players. Keeping everyone healthy and ready for tipoff takes priority over creating a competitive practice environment in which players are battling for playing time and improving daily. There aren't enough roster spots to worry about anything other than tomorrow's game.
Richie gets asked about the 11-player roster so often that she has a name for it: The Roster Question. "We are in constant discussion about the roster size," Richie said. "It's a balance of doing all we can to make sure our players are healthy and that we're putting the best possible game on the floor. We're constantly juggling all of that and will continue those discussions. But we do not at this point have plans to change the number."
It's all about how you look at the economics. Increasing rosters to 12 would mean adding another salary to every team's bottom line, making it that much more difficult to turn a profit. But instead of just adding another player to the roster, an opening that could cost a team as much as $105,000 to fill (the maximum player salary), perhaps the league could earmark that roster spot for a young player with promise, capping the salary at the league minimum of $35,190. While that number is still big for WNBA teams straining to tip the scales toward profitability, the payoff could well be worth it: Even just one feel-good, underdog-makes-it story could create the kind of buzz that eventually leads to more fans in the seats.
Some of the best stories in sports are about players who have flown under the radar and then, when given a shot, proved themselves worthy of the spotlight. Guys such as Lin or the Detroit Pistons' Ben Wallace or New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz or any number of backup quarterbacks who've stolen the show -- none quite as dramatically as Kurt Warner, who went from bagging groceries to snagging Super Bowl MVP honors with the St. Louis Rams.
When I was covering the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2010-11 season, second-year shooting guard Jodie Meeks was essentially the last guy on the roster, someone who probably wouldn't have been in the NBA if teams carried fewer players. But at some point, Meeks earned himself a few minutes and responded by knocking down a bunch of 3-pointers. Within two weeks, he was in the Sixers' starting lineup. This summer, Meeks signed a two-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The WNBA has found stability, and the product continues to improve. But it's time for the league to do more than just showcase the world's best talent.
It's time to start creating new stars.